I’ve taken my older son to the PA Renaissance Faire many times. Last year was the only year we missed. But a lot had changed in that time! So here’s my review of the best, the funny, and the undesirable.
First a surprise:
Online, I saw the weekend we were going was designated as “Children’s Day”–and that meant a free child admission with a paying adult. When I approached the ticket booth to buy the tickets the day of, I was pleasantly surprised that both my children were free that day. I’d expected it to be one free child for one paying adult. I was even more overjoyed to learn (how did I not know this after being a faithful attender for years???) that every year, Children’s Weekend means all kids are free! Best surprise!
After only a one-season hiatus, many things were different: 1) a new, bigger, nicer privy (Great!) 2) Instead of the two-story structure/stage by the Swashbuckler, a smaller/simpler set called the stables was erected (meh), 3) the Children’s Discovery garden was gone–with all its t-shirt painting, huge chess pieces the size of kids, a huge mounted coloring page and the trunk shows (my kids’ biggest disappointment) and 4) a new stage there, the Discovery Stage (more on that later). But many things–the best things, such as the jousts, in my sons’ opinions–were the same.
Watching the jousts. It’s very formulaic, which my elder son recognizes. He asked this year if I thought they’d ever have a joust where the King’s side (“right/good”) lost–such as in the takeover by the Tudors?) Not likely, I said.
The best thing about the PA Renaissance Faire is the actors who engage your kids. I love how when my kids dress up, the actors react to them as though they are part of their world and even try to fold them into the story drama of the day. I took a pirate and a knight with me this year, and the boys got so many comments such as “A knight and a pirate?? Together?”
This year, my older son’s favorite was a character named Edward Neville:
I send a big shout out to him, actor Troy Butler. My boys were spellbound when they saw his acrobatics in the combat part of the Human Chess Match. So much so, they couldn’t help but rush to him when they saw him walking the grounds later that afternoon. My boys like to engage in conversations–and they don’t just say hi. They wanted to tell the actor with the amazing acrobatic kills about how they practice on the trampoline and what trick they’re working on. Many props to Butler, who engaged them. He not only did his job, acting as a person of the time period (“What’s this ‘trampoline’? Oh, is this a thing of the future?”), but he also paid attention. When we ran into him and Sir Charles Brandon in an ice cream shop, the actors engaged my sons again, and Butler remembered their names.
Later, when the day was over, the cast lined up at the entrance/exit to say farewell. My older son made a bee-line for Butler, waving. Again, Butler remembered them by name, engaged in chit-chat about their swords. He asked the boys if they wanted to come back, reminded them of the days left, but warned us from coming in October, when the faire gets scarier. Last, he told the boys they could get pictures taken with King Henry the VIII and Queen Catherine who were standing ahead for just that purpose. My boys shook their heads, uninterested. I suggested a photo with Butler since that is the actor/character they connected with . Sadly, it was well after sundown, so the photo did not turn out at all.
When I first went to this fire, as a college student, that was the first time I’d been to anything where the actors brought attendees into their storylines. My memory is vague now, but some of my friends and I were dressed as gypsies and somehow brought into the storyline of the lead pirate and his lady love, another gypsy. That’s a tradition that makes such fairs unique. A reason why I encouraged my sons to dress up. My younger son found himself picked up, bodily, and hauled onto stage by Don Juan of the Don Juan and Miguel act because he was dressed as a pirate. It was during the final event of the night–King Henry VIII’s coronation.
I confess I do not know the story or exactly what my son’s involvement was. One son had just told me he needed to use the restroom. So we were slinking out to leave when the other son, the last of us to be walking out (and unbeknownst to me) was approached by the Don Juan who’d jumped off the stage mid-performance. My son later told me Don Juan asked him if he could join him on stage. My son said, no, we were leaving. Just after that, Don Juan caught up to me and asked if my pirate could join them on stage. I consented, and that’s when Don Juan hoisted my one son up and ran him back around the Globe stage and set him on the King’s empty throne, next to Queen Katherine.
I took a few pictures, but my phone’s camera is horrible after sunset, and the best I got was a little blur of white to help me remember that was my son up there on the throne.
And meanwhile, the other son is saying, “I really have to go to the bathroom!” I presume Don Juan observed some impatient body language so he returned my younger son to me, and we then made it to the restrooms! My pirate says he doesn’t want to go on stage again, but I won’t be surprised if it’s something he’ll talk about for years as a primary memory of that place. It’s not every little boy who gets to be involved. My other son, in fact, was jealous. We’d been to plays all day that looked for volunteers and he was always passed over. “I should have dressed as a pirate,” he lamented. “Then I would have gotten to go up on stage!”
Water and Food
The cost of water. When water costs $3 a bottle, on this day in the high 90s, we would have had to spend at least $21, and still have been a good deal dehydrated. To really feel well-watered, we could have spent close to $40. To avoid dropping tons of cash on water, we bought two of the large refillable commemorative plastic cups. They are $8 and can be filled with anything–soda, lemonade, water. We got water (because that’s how we roll with our beverage of choice). For $16 to start. Every refill after is $1. When I went to get a refill, I learned that the refill of water was free. So $16 was the cheapest way to stay hydrated. Water fountains and being able to refill water there would be better, but at least for our $16 investment, there was no limit. Which was good because, I swear, every time I refilled a bottle I’d look around to find my one son had sucked down almost the entirety of the 32 ounces! (He did this at least 3 times, not counting how much he drank slowly and in-between these occasions!) And for a treat, at the end of the day, I did pay $1 at the Knight’s Ale stand because they make unique soda flavors. We tried a vanilla and cinnamon flavor that might have been called “knight’s ale.” We don’t drink much soda, and it was a treat for the boys. (But it did have its effect–the urgent need for a bathroom for one as the other boy got his chance to be on stage, as related above.)
It is extremely easy to find great snacks and desserts here. One stand in particular, the Queen’s Confectionary. With huge cookies, brownies and ice cream, we hit this place every time we visit.
All kids were invited to a cupcake with the Queen as it was her birthday this day. My kids were mesmerized as we happened to follow the huge baker’s trays of cupcakes. Hundreds.
Food is more of an issue. Though I’ve been there so many times, I haven’t yet found any food to keep going back for. (And if you know me, I’m all about the food. Food is why I go to amusement parks and such.) The Tiger Pie is awesome, but at $7.50 or 8 , it’s such a small serving and not enough for a meal. Fish and chips is a go-to meal for me, but I was sadly disappointed when I ordered them the first time years ago, and, contrary to my expectations for a European-themed-event, the chips were really chips–not fries, as they really are in England! Granted, the kettle chips were hand-made. But still, if one expects the English pub fare insinuated by the name “fish and chips,” one is disappointed. It’s just a fact–if you set up a fish and chips stand at a Ren Faire, the people attracted to such an event will expect the real thing.
My boys found their go-to food item years ago. They love the perogies so much, they hardly are willing to try anything else. To them, that’s what the faire means: “I get to eat perogies.”
There are famous dishes I need to try in coming years: the Cortez walking taco or the expected mammoth poultry leg I see many faire-goers chomping on.
- So many features cost extra money. It’s not cheap to get in in the first place. ($30-ish for an adult, $11ish for kids, normally.) So $3 or more for every game and kiddie ride is just…out of the boundaries for us. In all the years we’ve gone, the boys have each now had two rides, and some of them with their allowance money. When you know you’re dropping $100, minimum, just to get in and eat a bare minimum of food and drink to keep everyone from fainting, we just don’t go for the extra cost. I honestly cannot conceive of how the faire makes money on those. I never see a lot of people participating. And yet there are employees manning them who are somehow trying to make a living. (The county faire near where I live recently changed their set-up. All the rides used to cost, but then they made it that all rides were free with admission price. I know nothing to make an educated judgement, but I just wonder: if they considered such a thing, what would the impact be? Would more people be willing to go? Would they be willing to pay a little more up front if they knew they wouldn’t’ be nickeled and dimed and have to keep weighing decisions about money at every one of their children’s pleas to “ride this ride, do that maze, try that sword-fighting game, try that jousting game?)
The joust: Think of this like a zip-line with a wooden horse attached. The boys eyed this for years; they finally did it this summer, trying to get the lance into the metal ring after flying down from the raised platform.
2) Bawdy humor. Yes, Ren Faires can be full of bawdy humor. This is the Renassiance after-all. (Have you ever read a Shakespeare play in all its double-entendre glory??) The schedule, however, attempts to inform you which shows are full of adult humor and innuendo, so you can avoid taking your children there. Except–when that schedule is unreliable. Yes, asterisks for the innuendo were placed by certain events, but the problem is, we went to multiple ones not designated as such by an asterisk, yet they needed one.
We even went to the new stage in the Children’s Discovery area (yes, Children’s), called the Discovery Stage, to see the Mt. Hope Players act out a tale of the Loch Ness monster. They were clearly trying to bring in kids as the audience by how the actors tried to reel families in prior to the performance. They brought children up to play the parts of the story and being silly in a way to appeal to children–but the group of three actors introduced themselves as The Lady Mayor’s Privates, after which ensued joke after joke based on the innuendo of the Lady’s anatomy. It still went over my boys’ heads, but they knew they were missing something because of the way the actors paused, made comments and made facial expressions that didn’t make sense based on the main storyline. My boys just kept looking at me: “Why do they keep smacking their foreheads when they say that?” And “Why did they laugh at that line–it wasn’t funny.”
The Mud Pit also is not designated as a show with bawdy humor, but the woman, made to look slovenly with blacked-out teeth(!) introduced herself as sexy and rubbed her curves. The show was full of penis jokes which my boys did get, and many joke about virgins they didn’t get. Characters gave themselves names, in the context of their story, such as “Princess Oh-I-wanna-lay-ya,” which brought on a slew of one-liners about the innuendo of the name. In sum, we went on Children’s Weekend, and I was hard-pressed to take them to shows that were really child-friendly, even at the stage in the Children’s Discovery Garden, the same stage where Lily the Unicorn does her shows. It is true that this element of bawdiness can be avoided better during the educational days the faire hosts. Certain weekdays are designated for school groups and such, and we went two years ago. I don’t remember the bawdiness so much then; the event is described as such. However, my boys found other aspects of that 9-3 pm version of the faire for kids to be lacking in other ways. Not all events are running, and many shops aren’t open. They asked to go back to the “real faire.”
3) Negativity. Also, I’ve noticed a persistent negativity of some performers. While many great ones keep up the fantasy and stay in character, I’ve noticed the pattern of some who make real-world comments that disrupt the suspension of disbelief. Worse, the comments are derogatory toward what they are doing/where they are. I’ll share two examples of characters in the entertainments. One actor in the Mud Pit shows makes reference to his degree in marine biology when he hawks the group’s merchandise; they call for support while mocking what they do for a living, calling it “plan D.” Another performer, who does a single-man act, does his dangerous feats and jokes about how this is what his liberal arts degree has brought him to. He tells all the kids not to go for a liberal arts degree, because “if you do, all you can do is this stuff I’m doing.” (I heard him say this two previous summers ago; seems to be part of his act.) This bothers me on multiple levels. While each person saying these things have an experience that gives them this viewpoint, I do not find it professional to share this viewpoint while entertaining, or with children. If they feel the need to make excuses for being performers, why do it to the children who look up to them in this context? Disillusionment and jadedness. It lends a depressing pallor over the entire affair. One my nine year old did not fail to pick up with his “why did he say that?” questions.
All things considered, we are lucky to be so close to a Ren faire that we can go almost every year. My boys still love it, and talk of costumes for next year are an all-year-long topic of conversation. Right now, my younger is thinking of being a Viking. (We noticed that this time–a ton more guests dressed as fur-clad “barbarians” and Vikings–on a 90+ degree day! Pop-culture influences!)